Leasehold tax trouble: Cook County governments have lost $88.7 million, letting tenants skip out on property taxes
Along storied Maxwell Street, where shopkeepers for decades drew customers eager for a deal and ready to bargain, the University of Illinois Chicago now leases space to Hashbrowns Cafe, a breakfast joint whose owners have big political connections — and seven years of unpaid real estate tax bills topping $114,000, plus interest.
Around the corner, Barbara’s Bookstore moved out of another university-owned storefront a decade ago. Cook County records show Barbara’s owes more than $980,000 in property taxes — more than $550,000 of that for the years after it moved out.
Then, there’s Bar Louie, another tenant of the old Maxwell Street market space that the university redeveloped and owns. The restaurant has been a UIC tenant since 2015. And it’s never gotten a single property tax bill.
But it should have, just like hundreds of other businesses in Cook County that operate in buildings owned by government agencies or nonprofits like universities and hospitals or have in the past, a Chicago Sun-Times investigation has found.
They’re at O’Hare Airport, Navy Pier, in and around Chicago Transit Authority stations and anywhere else government agencies have leased public property to private businesses.
The city of Chicago, the Illinois International Port Authority and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago also are among dozens of government bodies in Cook County that double as landlords, typically leasing space to restaurants, doughnut shops, liquor and convenience stores but also to doctor’s offices, preschools and even a marina.
In Illinois, government-owned properties and nonprofit hospitals pay no real estate taxes. But, under state law, any business leasing and operating on government land has to pay a type of property tax — a leasehold tax, with the amount based on the terms of each lease.
Yet $89.7 million that’s been billed for leasehold taxes in Cook County since 2001 has gone unpaid, $13 million of that last year alone, according to the Sun-Times investigation, which also found that government agencies have shown little interest in helping to make sure that their tenants pay their taxes.
The $89.7 million is money local governments were counting on but didn’t get. On top of that, $114.2 million in penalty interest has accrued.
The leasehold tax system works only if the government landlords cooperate with Cook County’s taxing officials. But that frequently isn’t what happens, the Sun-Times found.
As Cook County’s elected assessor, Fritz Kaegi determines the value of each lease by a government agency to a private tenant.
Then, Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough calculates each leaseholder’s share of the taxes that are imposed to cover local government budgets.
And Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas mails the leaseholders their tax bills, just as she does with homeowners and other private property owners, collects the money and distributes it to the county’s taxing bodies — school districts, municipalities and other government agencies.
Cook County officials have the names and addresses of every private property owner. So it’s easy to send them tax bills.
With leaseholders, though, the assessor’s office first needs to know that government bodies are leasing any of their property and then to get updates about tenants moving in or out. And, as was the case with UIC and the Maxwell Street properties, those government bodies often don’t provide Kaegi with that information on their tenants.
“Every time I get a bill, I call the department and tell them, ‘Not us,’ ” says Don Barliant, the owner of the Barbara’s Bookstore chain, which closed its Halsted Street location in 2012. “I do it, what, twice a year, once a year? Whenever the bill comes.”
Last year, Pappas sent tax bills to 1.8 million homeowners and businesses, including 1,220 leasehold properties that owed a collective $88 million. But her office didn’t get any money from one in four of those properties leasing space from government bodies and nonprofits, records show. Those 308 leaseholders had been billed a total of $13.4 million.
Among those delinquent leaseholders: the Hilton Chicago O’Hare Airport Hotel, Phil Stefani’s former restaurants at Navy Pier, the Forest View Marina on the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, North Pond restaurant in Lincoln Park and a 7-Eleven in the CTA’s headquarters on Lake Street downtown.
Some of those tenants just aren’t paying up. Others have been out of business for years — but no one has told tax officials to stop billing them and transfer the bills to the new tenants.
State law mandates that government landlords report changes regarding their tenants within 90 days to the assessor, who is supposed to add any new tenants to the list of leasehold taxpayers and remove those whose leases have ended.
Among the many times that hasn’t happened, Metra didn’t report that Beggars Pizza is a tenant at the commuter rail system’s Loop headquarters until after Sun-Times reporters asked about that. Days later, on May 18, Metra sent Kaegi a letter, informing him that Beggars has been leasing space there — for two years.
So Beggars hadn’t been getting billed because the assessor’s office didn’t know it should be receiving a leasehold tax bill.
There’s no way to know how many businesses, like Beggars, haven’t been paying these taxes because they’ve never been billed.
Another is Bar Louie at Maxwell and Halsted streets in University Village Maxwell Street, the UIC-owned development that pushed out what was left of the old Maxwell Street market. For years, Bar Louie has never gotten a tax bill because, according to the assessor’s office, the university never notified that agency it was leasing the space.
Bar Louie at Maxwell and Halsted streets in the University of Illinois Chicago-owned University Village Maxwell Street development.
Anthony Vazquez / Sun-Times
UIC: Not our job to monitor
Beyond requiring private businesses that lease government property to pay leasehold taxes, state law also bars state bodies — including UIC — from leasing property to anyone who owes real estate taxes, like its tenant Hashbrowns does. Once a state agency learns of such tax debts, it’s supposed to give the tenant 60 days to pay the taxes and any penalties, “or the lease shall be terminated.”
But UIC officials say monitoring leasehold taxes isn’t their job.
“The university’s standard lease agreement with tenants in University Village market place states that tenants are responsible for leasehold property taxes, which are to be paid directly to the taxing authority,” UIC spokeswoman Sherri McGinnis Gonzalez says. “The university does not have a department that monitors tenant payment of leasehold taxes; nor has the university historically notified the assessor when a tenant’s lease is terminated or expires.”
Not having the information to ensure that government leaseholders are taxed means that Cook County’s 1.8 million property tax bills can’t be calculated correctly, though it’s impossible to know exactly what impact that might have on property owners’ bills. It’s likely they pay a little bit more to make up for leasehold tax bills for government-owned properties that no longer are being leased — and that they’d pay a little less if county officials had a complete and accurate list of leaseholders, and those businesses were paying their taxes.
The county treasurer has no authority to make businesses pay their leasehold taxes or to collect if they’re delinquent.
Homeowners and commercial property owners who fall too far behind on their taxes could end up losing their properties through a delinquent-tax sale or to the county’s land bank.
But when, say, Hashbrowns fails for years to pay the leasehold taxes for its Maxwell Street location, the leased property can’t be sold to private tax speculators because it’s owned by a government body.
State’s attorney: too costly to sue
The Cook County state’s attorney’s office could sue businesses or individuals for delinquent leasehold taxes. That’s something State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and former State’s Attorney Richard Devine have spelled out in letters over the years to Pappas.
But the prosecutor’s office doesn’t do that. It’s been years since the state’s attorney’s office has sued to collect leasehold taxes from government tenants.
“In our experience, the modest amount of leasehold taxes collected through these lawsuits did not justify the significant amount of public resources exhausted in the litigation process,” Foxx spokeswoman Tandra Simonton says. “To make collection actions feasible and more cost-effective, the agencies who are leasing the properties would need to provide the county’s tax officials with accurate and up-to-date information.”
To pressure deadbeat businesses, Pappas sends letters to each government landlord every year, alerting them to the leasehold tax bills that haven’t been paid and asking them to identify any tenants who have moved out.
Not everyone appreciates her efforts.
“Respectfully, the [Chicago] Park District is requesting the Treasurer’s Office remedy its oversight and refrain from sending frivolous tax bills to the Park District and its concessionaires,’’ Timothy King, who at the time was the park district’s top lawyer, said in a letter to Pappas two years ago. “The park district insists the restaurants and businesses operating in the parks have concession agreements, rather than leases, so they shouldn’t be getting tax bills at all.”
At CTA HQ, 2 of 3 tenants don’t pay the tax
The CTA is one of the largest leasehold landlords in Cook County, leasing to businesses that include coffee and snack shops in L stations. But many of its tenants haven’t paid their leasehold taxes in years.
The lobby of CTA headquarters at 567 W. Lake St. is home to two restaurants — Saigon Sisters and Wishbone — and a 7-Eleven. Saigon Sisters has paid all of its taxes — about $16,000 last year. But the 7-Eleven hasn’t paid anything over the past decade. It owes more than $186,000, plus interest.
Wishbone’s situation is different. It moved to the building in July 2018 but has yet to receive a tax bill because Cook County officials keep mailing the bills instead to a former tenant, a restaurant called Province — which closed about a decade ago. The wine bar Bin 36 then moved in and out of the space — and never got a tax bill.
The CTA notified the assessor’s office about the Wishbone lease in February 2021, but the assessor has yet to update its records.
“CTA has submitted the appropriate documentation to the Cook County Assessor’s Office regarding the change in ownership for the space currently occupied by Wishbone,” CTA spokeswoman Catherine Hosinski says in an email in response to questions. “While there was a delay on CTA’s part in submitting the initial notice to the [assessor] of this change in tenant, a formal affidavit was submitted online last year. CTA cannot speak as to why this tenant has not yet received a tax bill.”
The assessor’s office has acknowledged that it has failed to update leasehold information. As a result, the treasurer’s office keeps billing tenants it doesn’t know have moved out, while new businesses don’t get billed.
Altogether, Province has been billed $363,589, plus interest, for the years after it moved out in 2013.
But county records also show Province’s owner, Caza One LLC, owes $153,072 in leasehold taxes, plus interest, from when the restaurant still was in operation there — a debt that’s unlikely to ever be paid because it’s so old. The owners won’t comment.
Old mistakes can’t be fixed
Wishbone still could be on the hook for its taxes because it’s been open not even four years. County officials have the legal authority to correct mistakes only for the current tax year and the three years before that.
Which means it’s too late to try to collect from Bin 36.
Pappas sent the CTA a letter in December, urging officials to help collect $1.8 million in unpaid taxes from the transit agency’s tenants dating to 2001.
The CTA says many of those tenants have left or closed but that it will keep sending notices to urge 17 current business owners to pay their taxes.
Dr. Leonid Blyumin leases space from the CTA for his podiatry clinic but hasn’t paid property taxes on it since 2006, totaling about $105,000, plus interest. CTA officials say they don’t evict tenants for failing to pay such taxes even though paying them is required by their leases.
Lauren FitzPatrick / Sun-Times
Among those 17 businesses:
- Dr. Leonid Blyumin, a podiatrist, owes about $105,000 in leasehold taxes, plus interest, dating to 2006 for his office under the Red Line’s Morse Avenue station.
- Gino’s North owes $140,267, plus interest, since 2007 for the restaurant near the Red Line’s Granville Avenue station.
- Seven Dunkin’ shops at stations on the Red Line, Blue Line and Brown Line owe taxes going back as far as 2015.
Hosinski says the CTA requires tenants to pay the taxes as a condition of their leases — but it never has terminated a lease for failure to pay leasehold taxes. And it has renewed leases for Gino’s North and other tenants while they’ve been delinquent on their taxes.
The CTA has renewed its lease with Gino’s North restaurant, near the Red Line station at Granville Avenue on the North Side, while the restaurant owed years of unpaid leasehold taxes. Gino’s has been billed $140,267 since 2007.
Lauren FitzPatrick / Sun-Times
City Hall cheats itself
City Hall gets about 20% of every real estate tax payment in Chicago, the rest going to the Chicago Public Schools and other local government taxing authorities. So City Hall benefits from leasehold taxes.
Yet the city continues to lease properties to businesses, mainly at O’Hare and Midway airports, that account for the largest share of the unpaid leasehold taxes on the country treasurer’s books — amounting last year to $6.3 million. That’s a small fraction of the city budget. But it’s a practice that has spanned the administrations of three mayors: Richard M. Daley, Rahm Emanuel and now Lori Lightfoot.
On paper, the biggest debtor among City Hall’s leasehold tenants is the Hilton Chicago O’Hare Airport Hotel. The county treasurer says the hotel owes $7.3 million in taxes for the past two years.
City Hall disputes that. It says the hotel is now owned by the city, so the Hilton shouldn’t be billed for any leasehold taxes.
“This property ceased being leased by Hilton in 2018,” says Christine Carrino, deputy commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Aviation. “Since that time, it has been operated by Hilton under a management agreement and is therefore not subject to leasehold taxes.”
City Hall waited more than two years, though, to notify the assessor’s office about the change in the lease.
“The city contacted our office last year to terminate this leasehold for 2021, which we did,” says Christina Lynch, the assessor’s office’s legal director.
During those two years, the treasurer kept billing the hotel for leasehold taxes, which CPS and other government agencies — including City Hall — apparently will never collect.
Airport delinquents get a letter
City aviation officials acknowledge that other tenants should have paid their taxes but haven’t.
The aviation department’s “leases with all tenants — including airlines, concessionaires and other entities — include requirements that the tenant must pay all applicable leasehold taxes to Cook County,” according to Carrino.
The city “is currently working with the Cook County Assessor’s Office to update several inaccuracies in their records related to leasehold properties,” according to Carrino, who says that, “in many cases, the records reflect that the tenant continues to be assessed leasehold taxes beyond the term of their lease.”
When tenants do owe taxes, Carrino says, “The department sends the tenant a letter directing it to comply with its leasehold tax obligations and submit proof of payment.”
At O’Hare, records show tenants that owe back taxes include KLM Cargo, which owes $967,802 for the past two years, and Gate Gourmet, delinquent on $298,144 last year.
At Midway, delinquent tenants for the past three years include Atlantic Aviation, which owes $226,720, and Home Run Inn Pizza, which owes $122,057.
One McDonald’s restaurant at O’Hare has been billed more than $842,367 in leasehold taxes that haven’t been paid over the past nine years. Carrino says those unpaid bills appear to be “in error’ because the airport’s eight McDonald’s all are current with their taxes.
‘$2 million? They can have the keys’
Nestled in Lincoln Park with a spectacular view of Chicago’s skyline, North Pond, an acclaimed fine dining restaurant, claims “the loveliest setting in the city” for its location in a 110-year-old Arts and Crafts building that’s leased from the Chicago Park District.
North Pond restaurant in Lincoln Park, which county records show owes $2 million in unpaid leasehold taxes and interest. Parks officials say the restaurant operates under a concession agreement rather than a lease, so it shouldn’t have to pay any taxes.
The restaurant is at the center of a dispute between the park district and Cook County officials, who say North Pond owes nearly $1 million in leasehold taxes, plus $1 million in interest, for the past 14 years. That would come to roughly $46,000 in lost revenue for parks programs since the park district gets nearly 5% of each Chicago property tax bill.
North Pond owner Richard Mott says he hasn’t seen a property tax bill in years, unaware the county has kept sending bills to his former office at 5038 S. State St. for the taxes on his prix fixe, farm-to-table restaurant. He says he and the park district just signed a new, five-year agreement with a five-year renewal option and that there was no mention he would have to pay leasehold taxes.
“They need to get that straightened out,” Mott says. “It seems like a pretty simple solution. The park district should go through the process because, boy, $2 million? They can have the keys.”
Emboldened by an Illinois Supreme Court opinion that found Millennium Park’s Park Grill restaurant didn’t have to pay leasehold taxes because its deal is a concession agreement rather than a lease, parks officials say all of the businesses operating in Chicago parks are concession deals and thus exempt from any real estate taxes.
The county still identifies eight park district properties — including Mott’s restaurant — as leaseholds and says they failed to pay a collective $218,673 in taxes last year.
After the assessor’s staff and park district officials met Thursday, the assessor’s offices says it now will review park concession agreements to determine whether they should continue to get leasehold bills.
Amid questions, a Potbelly’s pays up
When Potbelly Sandwich Shop wanted to renew its lease in the Metra headquarters at 547 W. Jackson Blvd., the commuter rail agency says it told the restaurant to pay all of its leasehold taxes.
“Before Potbelly’s renewed its lease with us in 2018, we required them to show proof of paying outstanding taxes for the years 2010, 2013, 2014 and 2016,” Metra spokesman Michael Gillis says.
Since Potbelly’s new lease began, its owners have paid some but not all of those taxes, for three of the past four years. It still owes about $64,000 in taxes plus $18,000 in interest, county records show.
After reporters tried to ask the restaurant’s operators about that, Potbelly’s sent the treasurer a check May 28 for $81,146 to cover the unpaid taxes and interest since 2019. Potbelly still has unpaid taxes from 2017, though.
Metra records show the agency typically notifies the county in writing and in a timely fashion about any leasehold changes.
A few months after Beggars Pizza opened inside Metra’s headquarters in 2009, the agency notified the assessor of the new tenant.
But no leasehold tax bill was ever created. So the pizza joint has never paid any taxes.
Beggar’s renewed its lease, effective May 1, 2020. But no one told the assessor until last month, after reporters asked Metra about its lease.
The Sun-Times has been unable to find leasehold tax bills for other businesses inside Metra’s headquarters, including a Dunkin’ whose lease began in 2009, which Metra reported to the assessor a year later, and a Burger King whose lease was signed in July 2019. Metra flagged the assessor about the Burger King lease immediately.
Kaegi has acknowledged that his office’s leasehold section has been short-staffed, particularly in 2019, when just one employee was overseeing about 1,200 leases on government and nonprofit land.
Navy Pier restaurants in arrears
A COVID-related rent dispute led to a lawsuit between Phil Stefani, a well-known Chicago restaurateur, and Navy Pier Inc., the not-for-profit agency that operates Navy Pier under a lease with the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, which is run by City Hall and the state of Illinois.
Stefani had long operated Riva, the pier’s white-tablecloth restaurant, and also the Crystal Gardens. He ended up in court over Navy Pier’s demand that he pay all of the rent for both restaurants even after Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered restaurants to shut down, hoping to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Chicago restaurateur Phil Stefani operated Crystal Gardens, shown here in 2021, and Riva at Navy Pier until last year. The pair of businesses owe a combined $700,000 for the past two years, according to the Cook County treasurer.
They settled the lawsuit, and Stefani left Navy Pier nearly two years ago, saying he’d settled all of his debts with Navy Pier Inc.
But Stefani still owes leasehold taxes for 2019 and 2020: $419,805 for the Crystal Gardens and $314,052 for Riva, according to county records. Stefani moved out midway through the year, so he might not be responsible for the entire 2020 tax bill.
Stefani, who operates many other restaurants, says he was unaware he had any unpaid taxes at Navy Pier.
Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., part of a national chain, also closed for good at Navy Pier during the pandemic but owes $40,613 in leasehold taxes from 2020.
Tiny Tavern, also operating at the pier, owes $145,000 in leasehold taxes from 2017, 2018 and 2019.
Another Navy Pier spot, Brown Sugar Bakery — whose owner just endorsed Lightfoot’s newly announced reelection bid, an endorsement that the mayor’s campaign trumpeted — owes $29,675 in taxes dating to 2015.
“Some of our tenant partners are contesting their real estate tax bills to reflect actual dates of operation,” a Navy Pier Inc. spokesman says. “We are in direct contact with those current tenants who appear to owe real estate taxes as they work toward resolution. We fully expect those legitimate tax bills to be paid.”
Other businesses that have closed at Navy Pier owe taxes going back as far as 20 years.
The pier never has evicted any tenant for failing to pay taxes.
Despite COVID shutdowns, other businesses at Navy Pier kept up with their taxes, including the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Harry Caray’s Tavern and Billy Goat Tavern.
Medical District sues over taxes
For 10 years, the Illinois Medical District Commission failed to tell the assessor that a past tenant, Nina Enterprises, no longer occupied any of the five buildings on the property at 1350 S. Leavitt St. Since the assessor didn’t know Nina moved out and others moved in, the treasurer has continued sending tax bills to Nina. Those now total more than $1 million, with more than $740,000 in interest.
On March 23, the commission took the unusual step of suing the assessor’s, clerk’s and treasurer’s offices, asking a Cook County judge to recalculate those delinquent tax bills and reduce much of the unpaid taxes for the years when all five buildings were vacant.
One of those buildings has been occupied since 2017 by Superior Air-Ground Ambulance Service. The company never has been sent a leasehold tax bill. It doesn’t appear that the commission notified the assessor of Superior’s lease.
The Illinois Housing Development Authority, a state agency that finances low-income housing, owns a Streeterville apartment building with commercial space it has leased to businesses including the recently closed Flamingo Bar & Grill.
For years, IHDA hasn’t given the assessor an updated list of commercial tenants at the building, called Lake Shore Plaza, 445 E. Ohio St. So the treasurer has kept sending bills to businesses that moved out years ago. Among them: two of Chicago’s biggest construction companies, Walsh Construction and F.H. Paschen & Associates. Both left six years ago. But the treasurer still sends bills to their old office locations at Lake Shore Plaza.
Thomas Schaffner, who moved his communications company out of the building in 2016 after then-Assessor Joseph Berrios began making Lake Shore Plaza’s commercial tenants pay leasehold taxes, says he doesn’t understand why the housing finance agency hasn’t updated its rent rolls for the assessor.
Schaffner says he was unaware the treasurer has kept sending tax bills — totaling more than $54,000, plus interest, since 2017 — to the IHDA address.
“I haven’t seen anything in years,” Schaffner says of the bills.
It was around the time Schaffner moved that IHDA spokesman Andrew Field says the agency stopped updating the assessor about its tenants.
“Since then, we have not been asked nor do we have an obligation to provide annual rent rolls or to provide the assessor [notice] when a tenant moves in or out,” Field says, though state law says it does have to notify the assessor.
IHDA requires tenants to prove they’ve paid taxes or are on a payment plan before renewing a lease, Field says. But he says the law doesn’t require IHDA “to cancel or terminate the lease for a tenant who fails to pay their portion of the taxes for the commercial space. IHDA has no legal obligation to monitor whether businesses are current on their leasehold real estate taxes.”
The defunct Flamingo Bar owes $183,651 in leasehold taxes dating to 2015, plus interest.
The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, which treats the sewage for most of Cook County, has long leased property at 5700 W. 41st St. along the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal to the Forest View Marina, which owes $287,998 for leasehold taxes since 2017.
UIC tenant got taxes cut, still didn’t pay
Some government tenants have tried to reduce their tax bills by hiring lawyers with connections to challenge the value the assessor’s office put on their businesses.
That’s what Hashbrowns, the UIC tenant on Maxwell Street, did when it turned to then-Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson, a nephew of former Mayor Richard M. Daley, in 2017 to fight its assessment. Thompson — whose law license recently was suspended after a jury convicted him of lying to federal regulators and cheating on his taxes — got the Cook County Board of Review to cut the assessor’s estimation of the value of Hashbrowns’ property by 31%.
Still, Hashbrowns’ owner Renato Ruffolo didn’t pay his taxes that year.
Nor has Hashbrowns paid any leasehold taxes on that location at all. Its delinquent taxes since 2016 total $85,681, plus interest of more than $27,000.
A Bridgeport resident, Ruffolo comes from a politically connected family, including relatives who’ve worked for the Daley family’s 11th Ward Regular Democratic Organization. Ruffolo, whose lawyer didn’t return calls, also owns another Hashbrowns at Division and Wells streets but isn’t responsible for the property taxes there because he leases that location from a commercial landlord.
Hashbrowns is one of seven businesses whose leases the university has renewed while they owed leasehold taxes.
“Given that the university is not privy to each tenant’s tax situation (such as the appeal information you reference in one of your examples), it is not a factor in the university’s decision whether to terminate or not renew a lease if the tenant is otherwise in good standing,” UIC’s McGinnis Gonzalez writes. “The university believes that it is in compliance with applicable laws in this area and is open to assisting the assessor to validate their information of record.”
Though Barbara’s Bookstore operated on UIC property, it never had a lease with the university, according to Barliant, its owner. He says he didn’t start getting bills from Cook County until after the store closed. Still, the county says he owes $980,000, which includes $550,000 since the store shut down in 2012.
“We do not owe them a nickel,” Barliant says. “We weren’t a leaseholder. We operated a store for the university. There was no lease.”
Another of UIC’s University Village Maxwell Street’s original tenants, Sean Patrick Salon & Spa, also moved out a decade ago. But the treasurer kept sending bills until earlier this year and says it owes more than $600,000 in leasehold taxes on the space even though it was taken over by a Montessori school in 2012.
Ten years later, the Montessori got its first tax bill. The $24,604 tab was due in March. It remains unpaid.